For the past five years, Syrian Kurds have stood alongside the United States in its effort to vanquish the Islamic State, in the process securing control over a vast area of Syria they hoped would form the nucleus of an autonomous Kurdish region.
The unexpected announcement by President Trump that he will draw down the U.S. military presence in Syria to make way for Turkish troops was greeted by the Kurds as a betrayal of the trust established during the fight, which has cost the lives of more than 12,000 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the joint Kurdish-Arab militia formed to battle the militants.
It remains unclear how extensive the U.S. troop drawdown or a Turkish incursion will be. A small number of U.S. troops pulled out Tuesday from two observation posts on the Turkish border, in the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, that were established this year in an effort to create a buffer zone along the border in cooperation with Turkey.
From Turkey’s perspective, the U.S. partnership with the Kurds has always represented an affront to its decades-old NATO alliance with the United States. The People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish group that dominates the SDF, is closely affiliated with the Kurdish PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is labeled a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.
For the Kurds, the decision to permit Turkey to invade marked the latest in a long history of betrayals of Kurdish aspirations by the international community, which started when they were denied their own state in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran in the wake of World War I.
“Our brave men and women with the Syrian Democratic Forces have just won a historic victory over the ISIS ‘caliphate,’ a victory announced by President Trump and celebrated across the world. To abandon us now would be tragic,” the Syrian Democratic Coalition, the political wing of the SDF, said in a statement.
Kurdish officials say they are hoping they can prevent, or at least delay, a full departure of U.S. troops from Syria. A complete withdrawal would leave the Kurds at the mercy not only of invading Turks to the north but also of Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian troops to the south, while facing the efforts of the Islamic State to reconstitute its insurgency.
Trump has vowed twice before to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, only to run into stiff resistance from members of his administration. The last time he said forces would leave, nearly a year ago, the Pentagon halved the number of troops, but administration officials managed to secure an extension for 1,000 to remain, pending the negotiation of a wider settlement to the Syrian war.
U.S. and Kurdish officials say it is their understanding that U.S. troops will remain in Syria south of the area along the border that Turkey is threatening to invade. Outside this border zone are overwhelmingly Arab areas where the risk of an Islamic State comeback is most grave. They include the city of Raqqa, formerly the Islamic State’s “capital”; the province of Deir al-Zour; and the al-Hol detention camp, where tens of thousands of women and children who lived under ISIS are held.
It is hard to envision how the United States could sustain a presence in Syria in partnership with the Kurds if the Kurds are embroiled in conflict with Turkey, an American NATO analysts and officials said.
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